Just about anyone who lived in or visited New York City in the 1980s or early ‘90s probably has vivid recollections of how the city looked back then. The streets were dirty, whole neighborhoods were “off-limits” to anybody who wasn’t looking to get mugged—and the buildings, billboards, and subway system were covered in a thick, ever-changing layer of graffiti.
While some of this unauthorized urban decoration showed remarkable skill and could easily be filed under “art”—even if it was technically vandalism—most of the graffiti covering the city consisted of hastily-scrawled “tags” thrown up to demarcate gang territory, or to fortify the reputation of the individual tagger. Most taggers used the classic Krylon spray paint, while the less skilled armed themselves with jumbo-sized felt-tip markers. The real bottom-feeders simply scratched their tags into subway car windows, plexiglass phone booth panels, and any painted surface with keys, razors, or other edged objects. Taken together, the sprayed, inked, and scratched calling cards became synonymous with urban blight and lawlessness—and the city fathers decided to take action.
The Broken Window Theory
One of the catchphrases that characterized former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration was his “broken window” theory of government. The “broken window” theory held that an unfixed broken window in a building gives a city block the appearance of decay and disrepair, and thus encourages the congregation of lawless individuals, who see the physical deterioration as a sign that their shady activities will go unnoticed. Once the criminal element is established on a block or in a neighborhood, law-abiding citizens start avoiding the area, leaving it to the miscreants and loiterers, and eventually the pestilence spreads outward into otherwise “healthy” blocks.
Giuliani saw graffiti as a symptom of this kind of urban decay, and set about eradicating it—especially in the subway system, where for years commuters had been harassed and victimized by gangs of troublemakers and criminals, and intimidated and demoralized by the proliferation of graffiti vandalism. To combat that proliferation, Giuliani formed the Mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force in 1995.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has taken up where Giuliani left off, throwing his office’s weight behind a renewed effort to eradicate graffiti vandalism in the city. The Anti-Graffiti Task Force under Mayor Bloomberg includes the efforts and participation of city departments like Sanitation, Consumer Affairs, Police, Fire, Transportation, Cultural Affairs, Environmental Protection, Parks and Recreation, Housing Preservation, the Human Resource Administration, Housing Authority, Landmarks Commission, and Transit Authority, as well as ordinary citizens and neighborhood groups. According to the task force’s website, the group’s mission “combines prevention and education, enforcement, removal, surveying, technical solutions, and community outreach.”